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Peoples v. FCA US, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

May 24, 2017

FREDERICK PEOPLES, Plaintiff,
v.
FCA US, LLC, Defendant.

          OPINION & ORDER GRANTING DEFENDANT'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Dkt. 37) AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT (Dkt. 38)

          MARK A. GOLDSMITH United States District Judge

         This is a disability discrimination, retaliation, and hostile work environment case brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq., Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (“Title VII”), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-2 et seq., and Michigan's Persons with Disabilities Civil Rights Act (“PWDCRA”), Mich. Comp. Laws § 37.1101 et seq.. Plaintiff also alleges negligent infliction of emotional distress under Michigan law. For the reasons set forth below, Defendant's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 37) is granted, and Plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment (Dkt. 38) is denied.

         I. BACKGROUND

         In 2011, Plaintiff Frederick Peoples began working for Defendant FCA US, LLC (“Chrysler”) in the chassis department of the Sterling Heights Assembly Plant (“SHAP”) in Sterling Heights, Michigan. See Pl. Statement of Material Facts (“SMF”) ¶ 1, Pl. Br. at 7. In August 2011, Peoples complained to his superiors that the rotation schedule was not being observed, and management agreed. Id. ¶¶ 3-4.[1] According to Peoples, this complaint led to a confrontation with a coworker on August 15, 2011. Id. ¶ 6. Peoples claims that the co-worker initiated the confrontation. See Pl. Dep. Tr. at 25:7-9 (Dkt. 37-2). Chrysler investigated the incident, and no one was disciplined. See Def. SMF ¶ 3.

         Due to a back injury, Peoples missed work from October 14, 2011 to January 4, 2012. Id. ¶ 4. Peoples then worked for two weeks, disagreed that his new duties complied with his new restrictions, and went back on approved medical leave from January 18, 2012, through April 9, 2012. Id. ¶ 5.

         On May 7, 2012, Peoples was involved in another interpersonal confrontation, again based upon rotation schedules. Id. ¶ 6. Peoples claims that his co-workers were the aggressors. See Pl. Resp. at 8 (Dkt. 42) (citing Pl. Dep. Tr. at 119-121). This confrontation led to Peoples being taken to the plant medical office. Id. Subsequently, Peoples's physicians diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. See Pl. SMF ¶ 64 (citing 7/10/2012 Diagnosis, Ex. L to Pl. Mot. (Dkt. 39-12)). On the basis of this diagnosis, Peoples did not return to work until February 18, 2013. Id. ¶ 70; Def. SMF ¶ 8.[2]

         On June 18, 2012, Peoples filed an EEOC charge in connection with the August 2011 and May 2012 disputes, alleging race and disability discrimination, as well as retaliation. See Def. SMF ¶ 25; see also 2012 EEOC Charge, Ex. Z to Def. Mot. (Dkt. 37-27). Peoples thereafter received a Right to Sue letter dated February 19, 2013. Def. SMF ¶ 25; see also 2/19/2013 Right to Sue Letter, Ex. AA to Def. Mot. (Dkt. 37-28). He had 90 days to file suit from that point, see 2/19/2013 Right to Sue Letter, but he did not file within that timeframe.

         While Plaintiff was on leave from May 2012 to February 2013, he was sent for an independent medical examination (“IME”) by Sedgwick, the company responsible for overseeing disability and medical leave requests for Chrysler. Def. SMF ¶ 11. The IME report recommended that Peoples be granted an accommodation in the form of “permanent transfer to a different Chrysler plant” other than SHAP. Id.; see also Wolf IME, Ex. L to Def. Mot. (Dkt. 37-13). In a letter dated January 15, 2013, Chrysler offered Peoples two reassignment options: (i) the “paint shop, ” which was still on the SHAP campus, but in a separate building; or (ii) the Warren truck assembly plant. See Def. SMF ¶ 12; see also 1/15/2013 Letter, Ex. M to Def. Mot. (Dkt. 37-14). Peoples selected the paint shop position. Def. SMF ¶ 13 (citing 2/6/2013 Letter, Ex. G to Def. Mot. (Dkt. 37-8)).[3]

         When Peoples returned to work on February 18, 2013, he reported to the paint shop. Id. ¶ 13. He was again injured on March 9, 2013, allegedly due to Chrysler's rotation violations, necessitating more leave time. Id. ¶ 14; Pl. SMF ¶ 73.

         While on this stretch of medical leave, Peoples contends that he was sent for another IME on February 4, 2014, this time to address his mental health. See Pl. SMF ¶¶ 73-77. He returned to work in March 2014. Def. SMF ¶ 15. He was again injured on July 2, 2014, and he went on medical leave. Id. ¶ 16.

         Peoples returned to work on October 14 or 15, 2014. Id. ¶ 17 (October 15); Pl. SMF ¶ 78 (October 14). For four days, Peoples trained on a stationary car door to learn the position of paint seal operator, after which, on October 21, 2014, he was directed to perform his tasks on the assembly line. Def. SMF ¶ 17. In uncertain terms, Peoples claims that this work violated his medical restrictions and that he told Chrysler so. See Pl. Resp. at 9 (citing Pl. Dep. Tr. at 178-183). The plant doctor, however, had determined that the job did not violate Peoples's restrictions. See Devine Dep. Tr., Ex. K to Pl. Mot., at 125:9-15 (Dkt. 39-11) (“Dr. McCormick determined that the operation did not violate his restrictions . . . .”).[4] Peoples could not keep up with the line's pace, the line had to be shut down, and he was disciplined via written warning. Def. SMF ¶ 17; Pl. SMF ¶ 81.

         The next day, on October 22, 2014, Peoples went to the plant medical office to complain that he was physically unable to perform the functions of a paint seal operator. Def. SMF ¶¶ 19-20. When a doctor was not immediately available, Peoples called himself an ambulance. Id.; Pl. SMF ¶ 83. That trip to the hospital resulted in a note excusing Peoples from work for October 22-23. Def. SMF ¶ 19; Pl. SMF ¶ 84. Also on October 22, 2014, after Peoples left work, the plant medical doctor, Peoples's supervisor, plant HR staff, and UAW representatives visited Peoples's work station to evaluate whether a paint seal operator could perform his assigned tasks within Peoples's bending and lifting restrictions; the plant doctor determined that he could do so. Def. SMF ¶ 20.

         On October 24, 2014, Peoples was sent a “5-day letter, ” stating that he had been off work since “July 2, 2014” [sic];[5] it stated that Peoples's absence “was established for a certain period, but has not been currently justified” and asked him to report to SHAP's HR office by October 31, 2014, “unless on or before this date the Plant Employment Office receives satisfactory evidence as to the reason for your absence.” Id. ¶ 21; Pl. SMF ¶ 85. The letter warned that failure to provide satisfactory documentation excusing the absence could result in termination of seniority. See 10/24/2014 Letter, Ex. W to Def. Mot. (Dkt. 37-24).

         On October 29, 2014, in response to the 5-day letter, Peoples went to HR, which directed him to the plant medical office to be cleared to work. Def. SMF ¶ 22. Peoples claims that he gave documentation to the plant medical office that excused him from work from October 23 through February of 2015, but, in support of this fact, he cites only to an illegible copy of the doctor's note he claims to have submitted. See Pl. SMF ¶¶ 86, 89 (citing identical Exs. I & N to Pl. Mot. (Dkts. 39-9, 39-14). Peoples did not wait to see a doctor as Chrysler directed he do; rather, he went home and did not return. See Def. SMF ¶ 22; Pl. SMF ¶¶ 90-91. On November 13, 2014, after Peoples had been absent from work for two weeks, Chrysler terminated his employment. Def. SMF ¶ 24; Pl. SMF ¶ 92. “[Chrysler]'s reason for termination was Plaintiff's failure to properly comply with the 10/24/2014 5-day letter, and for not being medically cleared to return to work.” Def. SMF ¶ 24; see also Termination Letter, Ex. X to Def. Mot. (“[Y]our employment will be terminated due to not following the reinstatement procedure.”) (Dkt. 37-25); Def. Resp. to 11/20/2014 Termination Grievance, Ex. Y to Def. Mot. (stating in response to union grievance that Peoples was terminated because he “did not follow through on 5 Day letter request and substantiate absences[.] Also not following management instructions.”) (Dkt. 37-26).

         After his termination, Peoples filed a second EEOC charge, dated February 26, 2015, alleging disability discrimination and retaliation beginning on October 22, 2014. See EEOC Charge, Ex. BB to Def. Mot. (Dkt. 37-29). The EEOC dismissed the 2015 charge and issued a right-to-sue letter on August 13, 2015. See 8/13/2015 Letter, Ex. CC to Def. Mot. (Dkt. 37-30). Peoples filed his complaint on November 14, 2015 (Dkt. 1).

         II. STANDARD OF DECISION

         On a motion for summary judgment, “facts must be viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party only if there is a ‘genuine' dispute as to those facts.” Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380 (2007). “Where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial.” Matsushita Elec. Industrial Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Plaintiff's Proffered Record Evidence

         Much of Peoples's version of the facts is “supported” only by unsworn letters he claims he provided to Chrysler contemporaneously with the events underlying this case. See, e.g., Pl. SMF ¶ 2 (citing 8/16/2011 Letter, Ex. A to Pl. Mot. (Dkt. 39-1)).[6] Chrysler takes special issue with this, including in its response a “Rule 56(c)(2) Objection” that highlights the letters' character as unsworn hearsay. See Def. Resp. to Pl. Mot. at 2 (Dkt. 41). Chrysler also lists each paragraph of Peoples's Statement of Material Facts that contains no citation to the record whatsoever. See id.

         Peoples, in his reply brief, attempts to retroactively attach “id.” citations to the factual assertions having no citation to the record. See Pl. Reply at 1 (Dkt. 47).[7] The Court declines to constructively amend Peoples's brief in this way.[8] He also claims that his letters fall under three hearsay exceptions: (i) admissions of a party-opponent; (ii) “evidence of Defendant's knowledge, because Plaintiff sent the letters to Defendant to put Defendant on notice regarding his experience at FCA”; and (iii) to demonstrate Chrysler's knowledge of Peoples's complaints “when it made decisions concerning whether it provided Plaintiff with an accommodation and knowledge that its employees had a pattern of retaliating” against Peoples for requesting accommodations. Id. No cases are cited, and Peoples only makes a blanket reference to Federal Rule of Evidence 801. Id.

         None of these hearsay exceptions applies. First, the party-opponent admission exception does not apply, because Peoples is not his own opponent; he cannot invoke Federal Rule of Evidence 801(d)(2) to admit his own statements. Second, Peoples's arguments that the letters are evidence of Chrysler's “knowledge, ” and therefore fall outside of the hearsay rule, requires that they were not offered for the truth of the matter asserted in the letters. Accordingly, these unsworn letters will not be considered as evidence of the facts and events that they describe.

         Peoples's final attempt to admit the contents of the letters is his claim that the letters “have subsequently been corroborated by Mark Taylor, Plaintiff's Union Representative.” Pl. Reply at 3 (citing Aikens Aff., Ex. M to Pl. Reply (Dkt. 47-13)). The cited exhibit, however, proves no such thing. It neither references Peoples's letters nor refers to any events contained therein, other than oblique references to the fact that Peoples was terminated. Furthermore, the beliefs of Mr. Taylor, which are offered via Plaintiff's counsel's recollection of their conversation, appear to be hearsay.

         Accordingly, this Court declines to consider the inadmissible evidence that Peoples offered in support of his version of certain facts, and it declines to consider any factual assertions for which Peoples did not provide a citation to the record. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3) (“The court need consider only the cited materials . . . .”).

         B. Discrimination Claims

         “The PWDCRA substantially mirrors the ADA, and resolution of a plaintiff's ADA claim will generally, though not always, resolve the plaintiff's PWDCRA claim.” Donald v. Sybra, Inc., 667 F.3d 757, 764 (6th Cir. 2012). When neither party provides a reason to treat the ADA and PWDCRA claims differently, courts tend to apply ADA jurisprudence. See, e.g., id. (“[Plaintiff] provides no argument as to why we should treat the claims separately, nor does our review indicate as much.”). In the context of the disability discrimination claims, neither party provides an argument that the claims should be analyzed separately, and this Court will apply ADA jurisprudence to both claims.

         The ADA makes it unlawful for an employer to “discriminate against a qualified individual on the basis of a disability.” 42 U.S.C. § 12112(a). The statute defines “discriminate” to include “not making reasonable accommodation to the known physical . . . limitations of an otherwise qualified individual with a disability” unless the employer “can demonstrate that the accommodation would impose an undue hardship.” Id. § 12112(b)(5)(A). To provide a reasonable accommodation, an employer may be required to modify the responsibilities of a disabled employee's existing job or transfer the employee to a vacant position with different responsibilities. See 29 C.F.R. § 1630.2(o); Kleiber v. Honda of Am. Mfg., 485 F.3d 862, 870 (6th Cir. 2007). If a plaintiff's requested accommodation is a transfer to a different position, “employers have a duty to locate [a] suitable position . . . .” Kleiber, 485 F.3d at 870. “Nonetheless, to overcome summary judgment, the plaintiff generally must identify the specific job he seeks and demonstrate that he is qualified for that position.” Id.

         “To recover on a claim for discrimination under the ADA, a plaintiff must show that he or she (1) is disabled, (2) [is] otherwise qualified to perform the essential functions of the position, with or without accommodation, and (3) suffered an adverse employment action because of his or her disability.” Ferrari v. Ford Motor Co., 826 F.3d 885, 891 (6th Cir. 2016) (citing Monette v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 90 F.3d 1173, 1178 (6th Cir. 1996)). “A plaintiff may do so by introducing direct evidence of discrimination, including evidence that the employer relied upon the plaintiff's disability in making its employment decision, or by introducing indirect evidence of discrimination.” Id. Chrysler argues that the indirect-evidence framework is sufficient to dispose of Peoples's claims, see Def. Br. at 12-13, and Peoples did not object or otherwise point to any direct evidence of discrimination, see generally Pl. Resp. See, e.g., Jenkins v. Plumbers & Pipefitters Union Local No. 614, 971 F.Supp.2d 737, 745 (W.D. Tenn. 2013) (“Because [the plaintiff] does not allege direct evidence, the Court analyzes his objections under the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework.”).

         The indirect method under the ADA adapts the burden-shifting framework set forth in McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), a Title VII case. Ferrari, 826 F.3d at 891. To proceed on a claim for disability discrimination under the indirect method, Peoples must first establish a prima facie case of discrimination by showing that (i) he is disabled; (ii) he is otherwise qualified for the position, with or without reasonable accommodation; (iii) he suffered an adverse employment decision; (iv) the employer knew or had reason to know of his disability; and (v) the position remained open while the employer sought other applicants or the disabled individual was replaced. Id. at 891-892.

         i. Prima Facie Case

         Chrysler argues that Peoples's allegations and evidence cannot suffice to establish a prima facie case of disability discrimination under the ADA and the PWDCRA. Specifically, argues Chrysler, Peoples's decision to leave unexcused means that he is not “qualified, ” which is a necessary element of a prima facie case. See Def. Br. at 14 (citing Gantt v. Wilson Sporting Goods, 143 F.3d 1042 (6th Cir. 1998)).[9]

         Peoples's absences, however, do not inform whether he was “qualified” as that term is used in the McDonnel Douglas burden-shifting framework. A court “may not consider the employer's alleged non-discriminatory reasons for taking an adverse employment action when analyzing the prima facie case. To do so would bypass the burden-shifting analysis and deprive the plaintiff of the opportunity to show that the non-discriminatory reason was in actuality a pretext designed to mask discrimination.” Hale v. ABF Freight Sys., Inc., 503 F. App'x 323, 333 (6th Cir. 2012). “[T]he inquiry should focus on criteria such as the plaintiff's education, experience in the relevant industry, and demonstrated possession of the required general skills.” Id.

         Although Chrysler's cited case, Gantt, does state that “[a]n employee who cannot meet the attendance requirements of the job at issue cannot be considered a ‘qualified' individual protected by the ADA, ” 143 F.3d at 1047, that case is distinguishable because of the nature of the Gantt plaintiff's absence. She was not unqualified because of isolated or intermittent finite absences; rather, she was deemed unqualified because (i) her doctor had not released her to return to work; and (ii) after an entire year's absence, the plaintiff gave no indication whether she ever could return to work. Id. Here, on the other hand, Peoples claims that he would have been able to return to work in roughly four months.

         An unexcused failure to appear for work, however, does establish a legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for terminating an employee. See, e.g., Burdett-Foster v. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mich., 574 F. App'x 672, 681 (6th Cir. 2014). Here, Peoples had a note from his physician excusing him from work through October 23, and he did not show up for work on October 24. Chrysler then gave Peoples a letter listing tasks he would have to perform in order to keep his job, and Chrysler claims he did not perform them. This suffices to shift the burden back to Peoples to show pretext.

         ii. Pretext

         To prove pretext, a plaintiff must show “that the proffered reason either (1) has no basis in fact, (2) was not the actual reason, or (3) is insufficient to explain the employer's action.” Id. (quoting Risch v. Royal Oak Police Dep't, 581 F.3d 383, 391 (6th Cir. 2009)). “[The first and third] types of rebuttals are direct attacks on the credibility of the employer's proffered motivation for firing plaintiff and, if shown, provide an evidentiary basis for what the Supreme Court has termed ‘a suspicion of mendacity.'” Manzer v. Diamond Shamrock Chems. Co., 29 F.3d 1078, 1084 (6th Cir. 1994) (quoting St. Mary's Honor Ctr. v. Hicks, 509 U.S. 502, 510-511 (1993)), overruled in part on other grounds by Geiger v. Tower Auto., 579 F.3d 614 (6th Cir. 2009). “[S]uch a showing permits, but does not require, the factfinder to infer illegal discrimination from the plaintiff's prima facie case.” Id. “[E]vidence within the first and third categories is ‘easily recognizable.'” Smith v. Hinkle Mfg., Inc., 36 F. App'x 825, 829 (6th Cir. 2002) (quoting Manzer, 29 F.3d at 1084). Peoples does not identify which basis for proving pretext he is using, but his claim that he complied with the strictures of the 5-day letter invokes the third method of proving pretext.[10] The third way of showing pretext - that the employer's proffered reasons were insufficient to motivate the termination - “usually consists of evidence that other employees, particularly employees not in the protected class, were not fired even though they engaged in conduct substantially ...


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